Middle-class child neglect
It’s a depressing world when people need to be told to speak to their children
By India Knight, The Sunday Times of April 29, 2007
I was at Great Ormond Street hospital last Thursday, and in the waiting room there were all these posters
saying: “Speak to your baby or toddler; talking to them is a good idea; it’s friendly and nice and they
like it.” Admittedly this was in the speech therapy department/cleft clinic, so I suppose there’s a slim
chance that some people think that if their child doesn’t say much it’s okay not to say much back.
Anyway, I was sitting there thinking that it’s a depressing world when people need to be told that it’s
a good idea to speak to their small children, especially if those children can’t speak very well
themselves. And then, when I got home and finally read the papers, I came across an article about
one Judith Rich Harris, an American psychologist who believes that parenting doesn’t have much to
do with how a child develops; according to her, the family counts for very little and peer groups
count a great deal.
Ergo, you could sit there staring blankly at your child and not saying anything for decades on end
and it presumably wouldn’t matter terribly provided a pack of children came round to tea and helped
it to integrate. I’m slightly simplifying her hypothesis, but not much.
It sounds completely insane to me, I must say, though I can see how it might seem tempting if you are
possessed of especially recalcitrant teenagers. Except that even – especially – recalcitrant teenagers
need a bit of robust parental debate every now and then; otherwise frankly it’d all be weed, girls and
My Chemical Romance.
Harris’s theory is somewhat undermined by a big long-term government-backed study whose findings were
made public last week. Researchers from the London-based Institute of Education studied the way parents
interacted with their children and how this affected the way the children grew up. In their report,
academics said a home stuffed with toys, books and so on stimulated children up to a point when they
were very young, but the effects did not last. Preschool computers and electronic activity boards,
which teach toddlers numbers, shapes, colours and language, are among the fastest selling gadgets
for young children, but researchers found they were largely unnecessary and said that what children
craved above all was personal attention.
Dr Leslie Gutman, the report’s lead author, said: “Toys and books have their place and do help children
develop, but what is important is having the parents interact with the child. To have parents read to
their children is much more important than having 100 books – that’s great, but if you are not reading to
your child, that is not engaging with the child.”
I was reading all of this and thinking, “Well yes, obviously”, but then it occurred to me that it’s not
that obvious at all. The middle-class version of parenting was praised in the report, which found that
better educated, richer mothers interact better with their children, and called on the government to
help less educated, poorer mothers to raise their children “properly”. But I don’t think that this is
always true. For a start, middle-class parenting relies heavily on farming the children out, to au pairs
or nannies or nurseries, which scores a big fat zero on the parental interaction front.
Middle-class mothers tend not to view ordinary life – the shops, the park, the launderette, the cafe –
as being sufficiently educational and are likely to raise their children in self-created little ghettos
of rarefied so-called excellence, where no day is complete without exposure to Sanskrit, baby yoga or
violin (I’m not exaggerating: I know several toddlers who do all three, and then some). They mean well,
certainly, but again none of this is particularly impressive on the interaction front, and nor is it
likely to help children to develop adequate social skills.
I’d go further and argue that a substantial proportion of middle-class mothers are to all intents and
purposes completely detached from their children. There are always a couple of them in the playground
near where I live, having given the nanny an hour off, flicking their highlights and chatting on their
mobiles from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave, while their child hovers shyly around the
edges of the sandpit, or runs around biting other children, or falls off the edge of the tall slide and
gets a nosebleed that it takes their mother minutes to notice.
We compensate by buying them expensive toys that are pretty much merit-free, or by taking them on
expensive holidays when a bit of English beach and a couple of donkeys would probably be much more
to their taste. There’s nothing terribly wrong with this – but there’s nothing terribly right about
1. Paraphrase the two opposing views on educating little children as displayed in the article.
2. Why does the author think that many English middle-class parents are not doing a good job when it comes to rearing their children?
3. Think of your childhood and say what you found most useful concerning your own education. Take into consideration:
- traditional toys
- electronic devices
- your parents
- peers, kindergarten
- your siblings